Money is wrapped up in all kinds of unpleasant emotions. Shame, embarrassment, fear, regret. We all experience these feelings about our money at one time or another, but we’ll be damned if we actually talk about it. To help eliminate the stigma around making mistakes with our money, or feeling scared about our financial security, we’re introducing Financially Naked — a series where people have the space to bare all about their most vulnerable financial experiences, mistakes, and regrets. Because let's face it: we all have them.
The phone rang at 5:00 a.m. and with my eyes still closed, wanting to stay in the dark, dreamy space, I pulled the phone to my ear. A man’s voice in an unfamiliar accent: “Where’s the money? I need you to wire it today.” I was awake then. His voice sounded menacing at that early hour and sent a chill up my spine.
It was the guy who wanted the couch I’d posted on Craigslist. He would pay me US$350 for it, but first he needed me to cash a US$3,000 cheque for him because he’d just moved to London and couldn’t get to the bank here in the U.S. before he left. He sent me the cheque, which I deposited in my bank account. I was to keep US$350 and wire him the rest, and a friend of his would pick up the couch later that week. I whispered into the phone that I’d get the money to him later that morning.
Deep down, I knew something wasn’t right. But there was a part of my brain, bathed in denial, depression and false hope, that kept me focussed on my desperation. I needed that US$350 to help pay off some of our ever-mounting bills and at least US$15,000 in unpaid credit card debt. Next to me but far away on the other side of the king-sized bed was my husband. He was in a heavy sleep, and I could smell alcohol coming off his every exhale. He would soon wake to a hangover from his gig the night before. I didn’t want to get up; the bed was my float in our debt pool.
Later that day I went to a Western Union office and wired the US$3,000. I felt sick to my stomach. For the rest of the day, I re-read the exchange of emails between me and the buyer and scanned the Craigslist site, where there were big red boxes warning about a scam using Western Union. I told my husband what I’d done, then called the local police to see if there was some way to get the cheque back. They told me to report it on an FBI website. Two days later I did, and then tried to forget it.
There were some things, though, that I couldn't forget. Like the fact that my marriage of more than a decade had been disintegrating for years. My husband was a great guy: funny, charming, handsome, smart, a school guidance counselor and part-time guitar player in a band. But we brought out the worst in each other. We had similar values — liberal politics, the importance of education — but so many differences. Money, and our personal relationships to it, was one of them.
We spent a lot of time fooling ourselves that more money would right our sinking ship
He grew up wealthy but rebellious against his conservative, country-club family, and I grew up blue-collar. He never wanted for anything. And I couldn’t want because my family had nothing to give. He was a spender. I was a saver. We both knew that the marriage was unraveling, but we didn’t have the tools or the emotional capacity to figure out what to do. And I was making poor financial choices in an attempt to save us. Less debt will do it. A new house will do it. Happiness, I thought, was always just a few dollars around the corner.
Not long after the Craigslist debacle, a close friend approached me and my husband about buying waterfront property in a burgeoning development in North Carolina. Several of her colleagues had made a lot of money buying and flipping land. This was at the height of the U.S. housing market, in 2007, just before the bubble burst. No houses had yet been built on the development, but my husband and I purchased some land for nearly US$300,000, with no money down.
The company selling the land told us it would pay the down payment and two years’ worth of mortgage payments. The land values would escalate and we could sell and pay them back and walk away with a profit. The fact that we were able to qualify for a mortgage should have been red flag number one. Who would give yet more credit to an editor and a guidance counselor already carrying a mortgage and significant credit card debt? We didn’t do our due diligence, either. This kind of head-in-the-sand activity was part of our regular mode of operations. We spent a lot of time fooling ourselves that more money would right our sinking ship.
The price of the land, of course, was wildly inflated. It turned out that we’d gotten involved in one of the largest sales scams in the U.S. — a pyramid scheme that included appraisers, banks, and real estate agents. They had inflated people’s salaries on loan paperwork. They bought and sold the same property multiple times, sometimes in the same 24-hour period. By the time we tried to extricate ourselves, it was too late. For several years we were part of a class-action lawsuit against the mortgage lenders. We lived with constant anxiety and worry over our own financial future, and our children’s. We nearly declared bankruptcy, but in the end paid US$30,000 to a bank for a deed in lieu of foreclosure.
The architect of the scam did jail time. We got divorced.
Our marriage ran on a similar track as the markets: the ‘irrational exuberance’ that eventually led to the Great Recession. It was one big party until it wasn’t
We’d never been good at thinking through the consequences of our actions. Our marriage ran on a similar track as the markets: the “irrational exuberance” that eventually led to the Great Recession. It was one big party until it wasn’t. In trying to stem the tide of unhappiness and make myself — make us — happier and whole, I’d put my faith in money. If only we had more of it, I thought, his drinking and my unacknowledged depression would go away. Apparently I hadn’t gotten the memo that money doesn’t buy happiness, or the one that says you should never make big financial decisions when you’re depressed.
Once we split up, there were divorce costs to pay, plus I owed my half of the US$30,000 deed-in-lieu debt. Luckily, we’d been able to sell our home and pay off the credit card debt. I rented a small house that was within my budget and for the first time in years, I was in charge of my own cheque book, accountable to no one else but myself.
I spent the following decade rebuilding. I lived within my means and did all the things that have become cliche for those who divorce — long walks, yoga, writing, deep thinking, therapy — and they worked. I remained close with my ex-husband. We turned out to be good co-parents when we weren’t married and I, at least, had less financial stress. My ex made his way differently and unfortunately, in 2016 he succumbed to a deep depression and took his own life.
That emotional turmoil continues — and will continue — to ripple through my life and the lives of our sons, who are now 24 and 21. Our financial distress is certainly not to blame for his death. Rather, it was a symptom of the emotional duress we faced, and didn’t have healthy ways of dealing with. Despite the years gone by, thinking about the shame and regret of those financial mistakes still makes my cheeks go hot. What if? I ask myself. What if?
Earlier this year, I received a US$2,400 cheque in the mail from a law firm that had sued Western Union for its part in the Craigslist wire fraud scam, 16 years after it happened. That money is now in a savings account and will remain untouched. It’s a reminder that I am in control, that I have choices, and that I can take my time making them.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan.